There is a man sitting in a prison in Florida, serving a life sentence without parole, with a first-degree murder conviction on his rap sheet. But Ryan Holle never physically harmed anyone, and he wasn’t present at the scene of the killing. He was asleep at the time of the crime.
How was he connected? After a night of partying in 2003, he lent his car to a friend with whom he lived, who then drove with three men to the home of a marijuana dealer, where they intended to steal a safe. During the burglary, one of the men killed the dealer’s 18-year-old daughter by beating in her skull with a shotgun.
Under Florida law, not only was the man who killed the woman sent away for life, but Holle was, too. The 20-year-old with no criminal record was deemed an accomplice, likely because his statements to police made it sound as if he had known about the burglary. He later said he had been drinking and didn’t know what was going on. He thought his friends had been joking — that they were actually going out for food. He had given his car to his friend on many occasions in the past.
Under Florida law, nonactive participants in the commission of certain felonies — such as robbery, burglary, rape, kidnapping and arson — can be charged with murder if someone dies during the commission of that felony, even if the nonactive participants weren’t on scene and didn’t pull the trigger, and even if the homicide was unintended, accidental or committed by a third party like a police officer.
The law essentially makes accomplices as liable for homicides as the killers. Whether Holle was actually an accomplice under Florida law, there’s no question his punishment fails to fit the crime.
The case made us wonder how Maine treats accomplices. It turns out this state’s laws are far fairer than Florida’s but could still improve.
In Maine, Holle potentially could have been regarded as an accomplice to burglary, but he probably wouldn’t have been found guilty of murder. That’s because, under Maine law, he would have had the opportunity to show he did not physically commit the homicide, was not armed with a dangerous weapon, reasonably believed no other participant was armed and reasonably believed no other participant intended to kill or seriously harm someone.
In Maine, people can be charged with murder, even if they didn’t pull the trigger, if an unintended homicide in the commission of a felony is a “reasonably foreseeable consequence” of their actions. But they have more of an opportunity to defend themselves.
Would it be fair, however, to have hypothetically charged Holle with the lesser offense of burglary? Under Maine law, accomplices are treated essentially the same as the actual perpetrators of a crime, no matter how slight their involvement. Even though a judge might hand down a lesser sentence to accomplices, they still have the severe conviction on their record.
No one condones being a criminal accomplice. No one wants to let people off the hook for the crimes they commit. But that’s exactly the point. To what degree should someone be held accountable for the crime someone else commits?
The law should allow for someone who plays a slight role in a crime to not face the full brunt of the charge lodged against the main perpetrator. That doesn’t mean the prime organizer of a criminal enterprise can get off free because he has others do his dirty work. It means there is flexibility to ensure that someone truly providing a small amount of assistance doesn’t have to be considered as responsible as the person who commits the most heinous act.
The state already does this for attempted crimes: When people attempt to commit a crime, but don’t actually commit it, they can be charged at a step below the actual crime. So, if the person was about to commit a Class B felony, it would be dropped to a lesser, Class C felony. Could a similar “step-down” approach be an option for the courts when dealing with an accomplice who plays a minimal role in the commission of a crime?
Some might argue that the law deters crime or deters the escalation of violence during the commission of crimes, but that would have to mean the public is aware of the law and that criminals are acting rationally. Studies find that criminal laws don’t generally deter crime. Having a criminal justice system deters, and increasing police resources can help deter crime, but not usually specific criminal laws.
There is room for courts to overreach in their punishment of accomplices, in a way that does not necessarily make people safer. As Holle’s case makes clearer than ever, there is no justice in a punishment that fails to fit the crime.